Something Else! Interview: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill

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Paul O’Neill is lucky enough to see his dream come to life on the stage every night. He calls it “Rock Theater” — and it’s something he’s had in mind since he was promoting tours in Japan, and producing bands like Aerosmith and Savatage in the 1980s.

The idea was grand. O’Neill would take a little something from his biggest influences — the rock opera of the Who, the majestic sounds of Queen, the symphonic influence of Emerson Lake and Palmer and the live spectacle of Pink Floyd — merging them into one show and then taking it completely over the top. “The idea is to take the coherent storytelling of Broadway and mix it with the power and impact of a rock show,” he said.

And it’s worked. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with its on-stage motto of “Fog it, light it, blow it up,” has become one of the top live acts on the road today. The band’s annual holiday tour has become so popular that they’ve had to split into two touring companies to accommodate demand, selling out two shows a day at many venues. The band has played to more than nine million people and sold about $334 million in tickets — despite the fact that O’Neill does his best to keep ticket prices affordable, and always donates a portion of the ticket price to local charities.

In the last few years, TSO has begun to stretch beyond Christmas, and in March, will kick off the final leg of its tour for Beethoven’s Last Night, the act’s first non-Christmas album, originally released in 2000. The band will perform that album in its entirety, along with songs from its other non-holiday album Night Castle, on the 60-city trip that wraps up in May.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Paul O’Neill discusses memorable moments with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Savatage, including “Believe,” “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).”]

The tour just returned from Europe, where O’Neill said one of the highlights was playing in Vienna, Beethoven’s home. He’s excited about the mid-March re-release of Beethoven’s Last Night, which features the story behind the record in addition to the music and a booklet with all-new art from famed Tolkien painter Greg Hildebrandt, who has become TSO’s official artist in recent years.

“We’re re-releasing it with the missing pages of poetry and all-new illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt, and the album is now done as I originally envisioned it,” O’Neill said. “Bryan Hicks, a brilliant actor and orator, reads all the poetry in rhyming pentameter between the songs. Bryan Hicks’ performance on this album blows me away. He actually becomes Beethoven.”

O’Neill recruits the best musicians he can find from both the rock and classical worlds to perform on the albums and tour with the band, and draws fans from both arenas as well. There are, of course, some holdouts who don’t agree with the blend, but that doesn’t worry O’Neill, who says it’s all about the ultimate emotional experience. “If Beethoven and Mozart were alive today, they’d be using electric guitars and keyboards,” he said. “Their music was meant to breathe. It wasn’t meant to be calcified. They wouldn’t ignore technology.

“I’ve always said music should make you feel emotions you’ve never felt before. I told that to Greg Hildebrandt, and he added something to it that I agree with. He said, ‘And it should transform you for the better.’”

We talked with O’Neill for the latest SER Sitdown as he made final preparations for the upcoming tour. Over the course of a lengthy conversation, we could barely get a question in edgewise thanks to the passion and excitement he has for TSO and its various projects …

FRED PHILLIPS: Why tour Beethoven’s Last Night now instead of the most recent record, Night Castle?
PAUL O’NEILL: When we first started touring Beethoven’s Last Night in 2009, Warner was confused. They expected us to tour Night Castle, but timing counts for everything. We want to tour Night Castle, and eventually we will tour Night Castle, but the Beethoven album — especially after the banking crash and the mortgage problems — seemed appropriate. At some point, every human being thinks they’ve had a rough life, but then you look at Beethoven. Beethoven to me was the first heavy-metal rock star. I was in awe of Beethoven because he was born to a poor family with an alcoholic father who beat the hell out of him. Through sheer will and perseverance, he was acclaimed as one of the greatest piano players that ever lived at the age of 21. By 25, he was going deaf. He had lead poisoning off the charts, and it being the 1800s, the doctors treated him with mercury pills. If Beethoven had crawled into a corner and given up on life, no one would have blamed him. Instead, he fought through it to write “The Ninth Symphony,” “Moonlight Sonata,” “Fur Elise,” music that would bring peace, joy and contentment to millions of people, but music that he would never hear. Not many people knew that at the time because he was too ashamed to admit that this sense that should be more perfect in him than anyone else was failing him. The night that he died was one of the largest lightning storms in history, and he was dying more alone than we could ever imagine because he couldn’t even hear the comfort of a human voice. I just imagined the ghosts that must have been in that room that night, and what might have happened.

FRED PHILLIPS: The spectacle of the live show is incredible with all the lasers, lights and pyro. Talk a little about TSO’s live motto, “Fog it, light it, blow it up.”
PAUL O’NEILL: It’s our job to make the biggest, best concert for the venue and then charge the lowest possible price. I try to keep ticket prices between $25 and $60 everywhere. What’s the point of having a great album or great concert if only corporations or the latest embezzler from Wall Street can afford to come? The production is huge. A few years ago, I had to leave two-thirds of the set in the truck, and after the show, I called my manager and told him that I wanted to skip Baltimore because the Verizon Arena can’t support the weight of the set. He said, ‘Paul, I can deal with it when you tell me you want to skip some small city in the Midwest, but we can’t skip Baltimore.’ I said I can’t cut down the show. It’s my responsibility to give people the best show I can. We’ve skipped it the last few years. But you’re never too old to learn. We’re lucky in America because every city has a great arena, but Europe is soccer-oriented, so there are only 10 or 12 venues that can support TSO. When we started the European tour last year, our manager called me and said, ‘Paul, we can approach this two ways. We can play the 10 or 12 places in Europe that can support the set, or you can do what you do with the music and adapt to what it requires so we don’t have to skip little cities no one’s ever heard of — like Rome.’ It made sense, so we adapted a little for the European tour. Even in the arenas we have problems sometimes. As a New Yorker, in 2005 I thought it was the high point of my life playing the Meadowlands. About 15 minutes into the set, the stage goes dark. I found the stage manager, and he told me we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, cool. After that, we started hauling extra generators. In 2007, we were in Jackson, Miss., and we started unpacking the generators. They told us, ‘this is a state of the art facility, you won’t need those.’ About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. I find the stage manager and say, ‘I know, we just blew the circuit breaker for the building.’ He said, ‘No, Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for Jackson.’ I thought, cool. It wasn’t the whole city, though, just a quadrant of the grid. Sometimes when all the effects kick in at once, it pulls a lot of juice. I always agonize over the shows. We’re not entitled to these millions of dollars every year. We have to earn it every night. The minute we don’t, we start to decline.

FRED PHILLIPS: Are you doing anything new or different in the live performances?
PAUL O’NEILL: I’m trying to bring back dance as an art form. All the girls, particularly, in TSO are triple threats – great singers, great actresses and great dancers. When I was growing up in New York City, I saw a movie when I was about six years old, it must have been on PBS, called “Stormy Weather” with Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. In this movie, Cab Calloway was at the height of his fame, and Lena Horne was on fire. At the very end of the movie, Calloway does “Jumpin’ Jive,” and two brothers — the Nicholas Brothers — come out of the audience and do this five-minute dance routine. [WATCH IT HERE.] I was just staring at the TV, and it blew my mind. Fred Astaire said just before he died that it was the greatest dance routine ever done, and no one has topped it since. For anyone who joins TSO, it’s required viewing. One day back stage, I had some new girls watching the video and there were a few crew members working and looking over their shoulders at it. The call for lunch came, and the stage hands asked if they could watch it. We came back 45 minutes later, and there was a huge crowd standing around watching it over and over. These guys are just like one nervous system with the band. They did this on one track, because that’s all they had back then, and one take. You wonder how did they do that? That’s part of what I want in TSO — lights, music, dance, pyro — something for everybody. The whole point of TSO is to do whatever it takes to have the most emotional impact.

FRED PHILLIPS: But the visual spectacle is just a part of the show. You have a huge cast of very talented musicians and singers on the stage. What is your philosophy when it comes to the musicians.
PAUL O’NEILL: One of the reasons that TSO has 24 singers is that I want to have the right voice for the right song. I could have the same singer do all of the parts, but that would be a cop out. I’m also trying to correct two unbelievably major defects in the music industry that are so built into the system that everyone takes them for granted. The first one is that if the label system broke you in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, you were expected to tour — 11 months and one off, 11 months and one off and then back in the studio. The human voice was not meant to sing on top of Marshalls for two hours a night five nights a week. I won’t mention any names, but so many singers have done permanent damage to their voices that way. We have 24 lead singers, so no one ever has to sing more than five songs a night. That you can do until you’re 80. It also allows us to do the big choral things. I’ve always loved Queen, but when they got to the choral part in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they left the stage and a tape came on. We can do that with live vocals. The second is, the prevailing wisdom in the industry was once that when an artist reached a certain level of financial success, they lost the drive to create. I’m a huge fan of the Greek philosophers who said use logic and reason to find the truth. Always follow it, and you will always find truth. What the labels were telling me didn’t hold up to logic and reason. Beethoven, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were all wealthy, and the whole world knew them, and they produced great work their entire lives. I think the difference is mass media. As an artist, you get inspiration to write from observing humanity. Since there was no mass media, Dickens could walk into a bar, see a couple fighting and get an idea for a story. Beethoven could walk down the street, see something and get inspiration for a piece of music. Now, imagine you had a party and you invited Michael Jackson. When he walked into that room, everyone would act differently. The room would have revolved around Michael. Then you’ve lost the ability to observe humanity. I think it messes with your psyche to not simply be able to go to McDonald’s and sit down by yourself. We want to be rock stars on the stage, but also have a private life.

FRED PHILLIPS: A lot of the musicians in TSO shuffle in and out, leaving for other projects and coming back. How does that affect things?
PAUL O’NEILL: People are allowed to come and go in TSO. I always ask the young kids if they could be doing anything, what would it be? Katrina Chester told me that her whole life she’d wanted to do a Broadway show about Janis Joplin. When “Love, Janis” held auditions, she asked if she could try out and if she didn’t get the part, if she could come back. I told her not only can you audition, but I’ll get you a publicist and make some phone calls for you. We’ve been very lucky with the talent that’s come on board. I want to allow the band to breathe. I never want it to become just a job. I tell everyone on that stage that some people who come to see us have plenty of money, and it’s no big deal, but for some people that come to see us, that’s their only entertainment of the year. We don’t have the right to not give them the very best show that we can.

FRED PHILLIPS: Obviously, the holiday tour has grown into a monster. Even though you’re touring this in March and April, will the audience let you get out of the arena without playing the signature song of that show, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)?”
PAUL O’NEILL: The Christmas trilogy (Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic, The Lost Christmas Eve) was basically an accident. I always hoped the Christmas trilogy would do well, but I never dreamt it would be as big as it came to be. William Morris once told me, ‘Paul, you’ve lucked into a Tchaikovsky.’ When Tchaikovsky wrote “The Nutcracker,” it was just another ballet, like “Swan Lake.” He never dreamed it would become so intertwined with the holidays. To me, a Christmas carol is great any time of the year, but it has a little more magic in November and December, around the season. In New York, where I’m from, the Christmas season ends about a week after New Year’s Day. I told William Morris I’d never play any of the Christmas stuff outside that window. That’s one of the reasons that we split the band in half for the holiday tour, so we can get to more places and more people during the season. The first year of the split, I was petrified, but ultimately the fans understood.

FRED PHILLIPS: When the Beethoven’s Last Night tour is over, what’s next for Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
PAUL O’NEILL: Romanovs: When Kings Must Whisper and Gutter Ballet are the two next rock operas we’re working on. The title of Romanovs comes from a conversation between Czar Nicholas and Rasputin where Rasputin tells him ‘Your Majesty, when kings must whisper, they are no longer kings.’ It was originally TSO’s first rock opera and was supposed to come out in 1994. My agent, Owen Laster, told me then that it was too good to be a rock album and that it should go right to Broadway. I told him I’d need at least $20 million to produce what I envisioned on Broadway. Owen got me $30 million, but he also got me something he shouldn’t have been able to get me — 100 percent total artistic control over everything. I’ve seen a lot of Broadway shows. I love them, and they’re great shows. Unfortunately, if you and I got in a time machine and went back to 1812, we could produce those plays the same way they’re produced now. They use a few light bulbs, a little fog maybe and wooden props rolled on and off stage by people. I ended up pulling the plug because Broadway’s infrastructure couldn’t support what I had in my head. That’s why when it opens, you’ll probably see it open in places like Vegas and Atlantic City. The casinos have the infrastructure. I wrote Gutter Ballet in the 1970s. I brought some of the ideas to Jon Oliva and Criss Oliva in the ’80s, but we had to metal it up for Savatage (the story behind Gutter Ballet, the downfall and redemption of a rock star, is the basis for Savatage’s 1991 album Streets: A Rock Opera). I originally wrote it with a blues, gospel and rock sound, and this version takes it back to its roots. Basically, I’m really happy because a lot of the stuff that we’ve already done is now coming out exactly like I wanted it to.

FRED PHILLIPS: Any idea when they’ll be out?
PAUL O’NEILL: (Laughs.) I’ve learned my lesson after Night Castle (after the album was delayed for years, expanding into a two-disc concept piece) to not make any promises about when they’ll be out.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse
Fred Phillips

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